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Sarah Bernhardt

stage and movie actress

Sarah Bernhardt

Henriette-Rosine Bernard was born in Paris, France, on October 23, 1844, the daughter of Dutch immigrant Julie Bernard -- the identity of her father is unknown.

In 1859, Sarah was sponsored into the Conservatoire de Musique et Déclamation by the Duc de Morny, a friend of her mother. While there she gained the second prize for tragedy (1861) and for comedy (1862). She made her professional debut at the Comédie Française on August 11, 1862, in a minor part in Racine's Iphigénie en Aulide. Success, however, was still a few years away.

In 1867, Sarah became a member of the company at Odéon, where she had her first definite success in the role of Cordelia in a French translation of King Lear. But it was her portrayal of a male troubadour in François Coppée's one-act La Passant (1869) that would catapult her to stardom.

Sarah's "silver" voice and emotional dramatic acting soon made her a star across Europe and beyond. She triumphed as the Queen of Spain in Victor Hugo's Ruy Blas (1872), as Racine's Phedre (1874), as Marguerite in Dumas' La Dame aux Camellias (1880), as the Empress of Byzantium in Vitorien Sardou's Theodora (1884), as Jeanne d'Arc (1890), as Napoleon's son in L'Aiglon (1900), and in many Shakespearean roles. She traveled around the world, including ten extensive tours throughout North America between 1880 and 1918.

Film Career

Bernhardt made her film debut in Le Duel d'Hamlet, in 1900. It was an experience she absolutely detested, but she subsequently consented to appear in another film. After seeing the results of this endeavor, La Tosca (1909), she reportedly demanded that the negative be destroyed. Nevertheless, she consented to yet another film.

Sarah's first successful film was a hand-colored two-reeler titled La Dame aux Camellias (Camille), which was released in 1911, and for which she was paid $30,000. Her biggest film sensation, Elisabeth, Reine d'Angleterre (Queen Elizabeth), was released in 1912. A huge hit in Europe, the film was even more influential in America. Producer Adolph Zukor bought rights for his Famous Players company, paying Sarah 10% of the gross and $350 a day for personal appearances. The receipts from this film's distribution in the United States -- approximately $80,000 -- provided Zukor with the funds to found Paramount Studios. The success of Queen Elizabeth also convinced other stage greats -- including Lillian Russell, Anna Held, Maxine Elliott, Lily Langtry, and James O'Neill -- to try motion pictures. In 1913, she filmed a three-reel version of her current stage hit, Adrienne Lecouvreur, which was a hit despite being criticized by some for its over-long titles.

In 1905, while performing in La Tosca in Rio de Janeiro, Bernhardt injured her right knee when jumping off the parapet in the final scene. The leg never healed properly. By 1915, gangrene had set in and, while touring in the play Jeanne Dore her leg had to be amputated, confining her to a wheelchair for several months. Immediately upon leaving the hospital, however, she reproduced her stage role for the film version of Jeanne Dore, which was released that same year. Because she could not yet walk on her new wooden leg, she was always shot either standing or sitting, forcing her to use facial expression rather than movement and thus helping her performance. The five-reel film, distributed by Universal in the United States, got rave reviews.

In late 1916, Bernhardt made Mères françaises (Mothers of France), a French propaganda film. Much of the film was shot near the front lines, in trenches and field hospitals. Despite being 72 years old at the time, Berhardt's poise and calm while in the trenches was not lost on the audiences, which received the film with much enthusiasm.

At the age of 78, Bernhardt signed with Hollywood producer and director Leon Abrams to film La Voyante (The Fortune Teller), even though she was in failing health. Too ill to leave her house, she had a film studio set up in her Paris home. Filming began in early March 1923, but Bernhardt's health prevented its completion. She died in her son's arms on March 26, 1923.

Other Information

Bernhardt also had some success as a sculptor, exhibiting at the Salon at various times between 1876 and 1881. She also exhibited a painting there in 1880. In 1878 she published a prose sketch, Dans les nuages; les impressions d'une chaise. Her comedy L'Aveu was produced at the Odéon in 1888, but enjoyed little success.

Bernhardt's only child, Maurice Bernhardt, was born in 1864; his father was Belgian Prince Henri de Ligne. Shortly before Maurice's wedding his father told Maurice that he was prepared to officially recognise him and offered him his name and a substantial fortune. Maurice replied that as his mother had raised him single-handedly and had made such great sacrifices in the process he preferred to remain a "Bernhardt". Soon after their meeting, Maurice accompanied his father to la Gare du Nord to catch his train. There was an unusually long line and his father refused to wait. The Prince de Ligne demanded entry stating: "I am the Prince de Ligne". The platform controller was rather unimpressed and said he had never heard of him and told Prince Henri to take his place at the back of the line. Maurice then came forth and declared he was the son of Sarah Bernhardt. They were immediately ushered through. Maurice is alleged to have told his father that he hoped he now realised that the name "Bernhardt" also had its advantages.

Sarah's only marriage was to Ambroise Aristide Damala, a Greek diplomat who was twelve years her junior, in 1882; he died in 1898.

Bernhardt's autobiography, My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt, was published in 1907.

In 1976, Bernhardt was portrayed on the screen by Glenda Jackson in The Incredible Sarah.


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This page was last updated on 11/08/2018.